Expats In Mexico – along with just about every museum and cultural institution in the country – is celebrating the artisans of Mexico today, March 19th.
This annual celebration of handcrafts and folk art in Mexico puts the spotlight on artisans who represent a long and rich history of creating folk and indigenous art for buyers from around the world.
Much of the art of Mexico is purchased by the over 40 million tourists who visit the country each year and buyers from department stores, art galleries, museum stores and other retailers from the U.S. Europe and many other countries.
One of the premier vehicles for Mexican artisans to showcase their work is the Feria Maestros del Arte, a three-day event that is held in November of each year at the Chapala Yacht Club. Now in its 18th year, the artisan show presents 85 carefully-selected maestros of many different art forms.
We invited Marianne Carlson from Ajijic – the founder of the Feria Maestros del Arte – to help us better understand Artisan Day and the world of handcrafts and folk art.
“Artisan’s Day, or Dia del Artesano, is a creation of the National Fund for the Development of Arts and Crafts (FONART),” Carlson said. “It was first celebrated at the Museo Nacional de las Culturas in Mexico City.”
Nearly 8 percent of Mexico’s population works at some form of handcraft or folk art, according to FONART, and 70 percent of them are women. Artisan work spans a wide range of categories from artwork to ceramics to rugs to jewelry. The Feria Maestros del Arte lists 22 separate categories of handcrafts and folk art on display each year at the show.
“Probably the category most people are familiar with is pottery,” Carlson said. “For example, Mata Ortiz ceramics, from the village of the same name in the northern state of Chihuahua, are very high quality, well-known and expensive, but expensive for a good reason. Artisans in Mata Ortiz create thin-walled ceramics, which are not thrown on a wheel. The maestro, Juan Quezada, taught the whole village the technique. When he was a boy, he used to watch cattle in the hills and found sites left by the Paquimé indigenous people that had beautiful pottery shards. He puzzled how they made their pottery so thin and spent his whole life recreating that pottery. Mata Ortiz pottery is collectible and highly-prized because of its thin-wall designs.”
But Carlson pointed out an increasing problem for the artisans of Mexico.
“Most people who visit Mexico go to the major tourist destinations, like Guadalajara,” she said. “Once there, they often shop in Tonalá, which is a suburb located southeast of Guadalajara’s city-center. Tonalá has all kinds of art, but much of it now is made in China, not handcrafted in Mexico. A lot of people just have store space in Tonalá and buy from China, but the artists there most often don’t sell their work in a gallery or a store. You have to go to their home. Tourists see the ceramics and other artwork and think they have been crafted in Mexico. They buy it because it looks authentic and is less expensive.”
Carlson sees this trend as a threat to the over 10,0000 artisans of Mexico.
“I had a majolica (thin-glazed ceramics) client who had a factory in Dolores Hidalgo who went out of business because his top two clients started buying from China,” she said. “They sent my client’s beautiful ceramics to China to have them copied and produced at a lower price. But they weren’t painting it, they just put decals on the pots. It was well done, but it wasn’t hand-painted. It was not majolica. That is happening to many different art forms all over the world, not just Mexico. You may pay a little more for work that the artist’s hands have touched, but it is authentic to Mexico and you are supporting the families of the country and the artisan tradition.”
The Feria Maestros del Arte works hard to ensure that all 85 artists that attend each year are well-vetted through a rigorous screening process.
“We go through hundreds of applications each year,” Carlson explained. “They complete an online application and must meet a number of screening criteria that have been developed over the past 18 years. Then our selection committee reviews the applications and selects the 85 artists who best represent all of the different art forms produced in Mexico.”
When Carlson first started the Feria Maestros del Arte in 2001, she personally traveled throughout Mexico to find the best artisans for her show.
“We now have coordinators in the major art centers of Chiapas, Oaxaca and Michoacán because each state is represented by 15 artists each year at the Feria,” she said. “The coordinators visit and check on each artist to ensure they do what they say they do.”
Every once in a while, someone slips through the screening net, though.
“One year we had an artist apply who did black pottery and had won the biggest prize at the national ceramics show in Tlaquepaque,” she said. “But one of the judges was a well-known black pottery artisan and discovered the name on the pot was not the person who claimed he had made it. That’s why we are so careful about checking to see if the artist actually did the work.”
This year, the Feria Maestros del Arte will be held Friday, November 8th through Sunday, November 10th and will attract nearly 4,000 participants, including expat art lovers, museum store buyers and other retail store merchandisers. Even a tour group from Australia will be flying in for the show.
“The name maestro means teacher in Spanish and some of ours are very, very famous, but not all” Carlson said. “We choose them because of the quality of their work, even though some may not be well-known. The key for us is the highest quality artisan work created in Mexico. That to us is an authentic maestro.”